Article image

Birds that move to a new place can learn the local songs to fit in and survive

Researchers have discovered that translocated songbirds can learn the complex songs necessary for their survival in the wild.

This finding marks a significant milestone in wildlife conservation, offering hope and a new understanding of how species can recover and thrive after being relocated to a new area.

The study was led by Dr. Sarah Collins from the University of Plymouth, and was a collaborative effort with conservation experts from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The researchers followed translocated chicks of cirl buntings (Emberiza cirlus) from their initial rearing stages in Devon to their reintroduction in Cornwall.

These efforts were part of an ambitious conservation program led by the RSPB from 2006 to 2011, aimed at reviving the dwindling populations of this species. 

Since the chicks were translocated before the song learning period, the researchers said this was a unique opportunity to follow song changes in a reintroduced population.

Abnormal song types 

Initially, the translocated songbirds exhibited a concerning reduction in song diversity. The 2011 recordings at their new home in Cornwall revealed a repertoire filled with a wide array of abnormal song types, starkly different from those of their original Devon populations. 

This anomaly was attributed to the chicks’ unique upbringing: they were hand-reared with a limited auditory exposure to cirl bunting songs — specifically, a CD playing a singular song type.

However, a follow-up study in 2019 brought to light a remarkable recovery. The song diversity within the Cornwall population had not only improved but had also aligned closely with that of the Devon source populations and other cirl bunting communities. 

This recovery from what the researchers termed a “cultural bottleneck” demonstrates the species’ ability to overcome initial handicaps in song learning, suggesting that the translocation of nestlings might not detrimentally impact their communication abilities or population persistence in the long term.

Song diversity 

“Song diversity is a crucial feature among songbird populations, and although it has been examined as part of relocation or reintroduction programs in the past, there were no studies on what happens when you translocate nestling songbirds before they have had a chance to learn their song,” said Dr. Collins.

“Although we found translocating nestlings led to a short-term lack of song diversity, the population recovered from this to produce normal songs.”

“This is ultimately a positive conservation story that we can learn from for the future. What we found with these cirl buntings, however, cannot be guaranteed to occur in all song learning birds. So we believe the song development of a species needs to be considered in translocation projects, and that could include playing species typical song to young chicks before they are released in the wild.”

Success story for translocated songbirds

In the decade from 2007 to 2016, the number of breeding pairs in the reintroduction location increased from 9 to 65, according to observations from the RSPB project team.

“Cirl buntings have been a pioneering conservation success story,” said study co-author Cath Jeffs. “That they are singing once again in Cornwall is testament to the hard work by the many people involved. That they are singing like cirl buntings demonstrates how wonderful nature is.”

More about Cirl buntings

The cirl bunting, a small and vibrant passerine bird, captivates birdwatchers with its colorful plumage and melodic songs.

Native to Europe and the Mediterranean, this species thrives in warm climates, favoring habitats that blend farmland, thickets, and hedgerows.

The male cirl bunting is particularly striking, boasting a distinctive greenish-black face, yellow underparts, and a rich chestnut back, while the female and juveniles wear more subdued shades, blending seamlessly into their surroundings.

Diet and feeding habits

Cirl buntings lead a diet primarily composed of seeds and insects, showcasing a versatile feeding strategy that adapts seasonally.

In the warmer months, insects constitute the bulk of their diet, providing essential proteins for growth and development.

As the seasons turn, these birds shift their focus to seeds, demonstrating their ability to exploit the resources available within their habitats.

Cirl bunting breeding and social structure

Breeding season unveils the complexity of cirl bunting social structures. Males stake out territories with fervent songs, both to attract mates and to ward off rivals. Their melodies fill the air, creating a symphony that defines the spring and summer landscape.

Once paired, cirl buntings are diligent in nest-building, choosing concealed spots on the ground or in low bushes to lay their eggs.

The female takes on the primary role of incubation, while both parents share responsibilities in feeding and protecting their fledglings.

Conservation efforts

Conservation efforts have become crucial for the survival of cirl buntings, particularly in areas where agricultural practices have encroached upon their natural habitats.

Initiatives aimed at preserving and restoring their environments have shown promise, leading to gradual increases in their populations in certain areas.

These projects often involve collaborations between conservationists, farmers, and local communities, highlighting the importance of collective action in safeguarding biodiversity.

The cirl bunting’s story is one of resilience and beauty, serving as a reminder of the intricate connections between species and their environments.

As we continue to explore and understand these relationships, the cirl bunting stands as a beacon of the wonders that lie within the natural world, urging us to protect the delicate balance that sustains life on our planet.

The study is published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day